When this story hits stands, lifelong surfer Cliff Graham will be sinking his toes into the sand and preparing to jump into the waters off the coast of East Asia. But the humanitarian will have more on his mind than mastering the waves of the Sea of Japan.
Graham might err a little on the side of caution, but will embrace his sense of adventure, because he is catching waves in a spirit of goodwill in waters that belong to the most isolated country in the world.
Graham is surfing in North Korea.
Before heading out of the county, Graham, the head of a Malibu-based outreach ministry, told The Malibu Timeshe will have mixed emotions when he gets to country’s beaches.
“It has been said that after you’ve seriously
traveled to three countries, you don’t get a culture shock,” Graham, who has traveled to over 50 countries, said. “But, I’m not 100 percent sure of that, especially heading into a closed country. Not only will I be bombarded by the concept of surfing a truly secret spot, but the entire pioneer angle of going where most have never tried, or won’t go, exemplifies the true surfing adventure.”
Graham is currently midway through a surf trip (July 30 to August 10) with 16 other surfers as part of an outreach trip organized by Surfing the Nations — an 18-year-old humanitarian organization that organizes trips across the globe. The Wahiawa, Hawaii-based nonprofit is making the trip to North Korea for its second consecutive summer.
This is Graham’s first trip to North Korea. He said the trip’s focus is on forging relationships and teaching the art of surfing.
“It’s a humanitarian effort, and we will see where those relationships can lead us down the road,” Graham said.
The Surfing the Nations trip was made possible through an invitation from the Korean International Travel Company and Love North Korea Ministries, a Christian-based humanitarian group that works in the rogue state. Over 20 volunteers from Surfing the Nations traveled to North Korea last July and taught surfing to North Korean tour guides on Shijung and Majon beaches, located on the country’s eastern shore.
Graham and the other surfers, who hail from the U.S. and other countries, planned to host surf and skate camps throughout the ten-day North Korea trip.
Surfing the Nations founder Tom Bauer said in a statement that lives and nations are being changed through surfing.
“As surfers, it’s always our responsibility to give back,” he said. “From our humanitarian point of view, people need love the most when they deserve it the least. Why wouldn’t we then go to North Korea?”
Foreigners that travel to North Korea reportedly have very controlled visits.
Graham said Surfing the Nations had no problems entering and exiting the reclusive nation last year. “You have no idea what to expect, though,” he said. “However, it is a great opportunity to surf somewhere where there are no crowds at all and build relationships that can develop over time.”
Graham has known Bauer for 33 years. The two met in Hawaii while Graham was teaching windsurfing and Bauer was doing outreach through youth surfing.
Since its inception in 1997, Surfing the Nations has helped serve and build communities in Indonesia, done relief work in Sri Lanka, and taken annual trips to countries in the Middle East to advance the sport of surfing and provide clothes and toys to orphanages.
Graham said he has had similar travels through his ministry over the past two decades. He has been to Afghanistan twice, hosted a youth conference in Iraq and spoke with youth in Ukraine. He traveled to Nepal to do relief work earlier this summer.
“Anytime you can make connections and bridge into young people’s lives, it is always a great adventure,” Graham said. Graham added that he jumped at the opportunity to go to North Korea after Bauer’s invitation.
The organization’s trip isn’t the first foray by Americans into the country through sports. Former professional wrestler Ric Flair led a small group of American and Japanese pro wrestlers to North Korea’s capital, Pyongyang, in 1995. A contingent of basketball players led by former NBA star Dennis Rodman traveled to North Korea in January 2014 and played in an exhibition game hosted for North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un.
Graham said he is excited to catch a wave far from Malibu’s scenic coastline. He also hopes to show North Koreans that Americans are different from how they are perhaps perceived on televisions across the globe.
“We are representatives of our home countries, showing North Korea that we are different than — potentially — what they may expect,” he said. “We are surfers giving back and making cultural bridges.”
For more information or to donate, visit surfingthenations.com.